26 Wall Street is one of the most important addresses in America. The Continental Congress met there. The Bill of Rights was drafted there. George Washington took the oath of office there. The first State of the Union address was delivered to Federal Hall. It was ground zero for what became the core of the Republic.
When Washington delivered his address to Congress, he reinforced the point that defending the nation was job one for the federal government. "Among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention, that of providing for the common defense will merit particular regard," he wrote, "To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."
Congress has, at least in spirit, long honored the idea that providing for the common defense is a special obligation. Even in those years when it does little else, Congress has managed to pass and get signed into law an authorization bill that provides oversight of worldwide military operations and programs, and an appropriations bill that pays the Pentagon's bills.
This year might be different.
When Senate Majority Harry Reid was pressed on his priorities for government appropriations measures, he did not sound much like George Washington. "Those days are behind us," Reid said. "We are not going to be gamed by having the military programs funded at a much higher level than Head Start program, or NIH [National Institute of Health]. We're not going to do that. We're through."
Reid's remarks are the culmination of a bipartisan notion that has been building in Washington for some time: that defense is just something else that the federal government spends money on, and it's no more or less important than anything else.
That Reid singled out Head Start as a comparison is particularly galling. Last year, noted Heritage Foundation education expert Lindsey Burke, the Obama administration released "the findings of the scientifically rigorous evaluation that tracked 5,000 three- and four-year-old children...." The administration concluded, as Burke summarizes, "Head Start also had little to no effect on the other socio-emotional, health, or parenting outcomes of children participating in the program."
Translation: The U.S. has spent about $100 billion on a program with no apparent value ... and that is the program Reid picks as a poster child for a priority that is supposedly just as important (if not more so) than defense.
According to Reid's sense of priorities, not only is providing for the common defense not all that important, neither is being a good steward of our tax dollars.
Much of the talk of reigning in defense spending is clothed in the language of fiscal responsibility: we need to be more efficient and eliminate waste. And indeed, these ought to be important priorities for the people Americans send to represent them in Washington. But are they?
Cheerleading for Head Start raises some doubts. So do some of the defense "savings" being proposed. Reid, for example, seem perfectly happy to let the military be funded at sequester levels. That means, for one thing, that the Navy will have to cut 30 ships in the next nine years. That's a bit of head scratcher when he also cheerleads for President Obama's "pivot to Asia"--where the U.S. operates mostly on the water.
Lawmakers who put the armed forces on an equal footing with other programs seeking federal largesse are ill-serving their constituents, not to mention their country.
- James Jay Carafano is Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Examiner